Planning your food for a long distance hike can feel overwhelming: How much do I eat? What do I eat that’s going to provide energy for 10+ hours of hiking per day? How do I plan food to keep my food weight down?
There are a lot of misconceptions about what constitutes ideal backpacking foods. My intention with this post is to give you some factors to think about that will help you choose backpacking food that provides stead energy and keeps your pack weight lower. Note that this is specifically speaking to macronutrient ratios that make sense for backpackers. What you do in normal, daily life will likely be different because your body is not under the same demands.
Why bother meal planning at all? For backpackers, thinking about your macros is mostly helpful if you want to achieve:
- lower pack weight
- better performance (e.g. better energy, better endurance, faster recovery, better immune function, better mood)
If you’re asking your body to perform optimally, it makes sense to provide it with optimal inputs.
The first step in backcountry meal planning is figuring out roughly how many calories to pack each day. Rather than using broad ranges, such as 2 pounds per day or X,000 calories per day, which will probably result in you over or under packing food, you can use an online calculator like the one at tdeecalculator.net or exrx.net to get an activity-adjusted estimate.
Once you know how much you’re eating, what should those foods consist of? That’s where macronutrients come in.
What are macronutrients?
Essentially, macronutrients are the 3 components that make up all of our food. They include protein, fat, and carbohydrate. All three are important. For this conversation, we’ll focus mostly on fat and carbohydrate. Each day, you need a minimum amount of protein, which is important for muscle repair and building, as well as immune function, neurotransmitter production, and much more.
We need a certain amount of protein each day to prevent muscle wasting and facilitate repair. The remainder of your calories consist of either fats or carbohydrates, the primary sources of your cellular energy. Your exact needs for carbohydrate and fat depend on you, but I’ll provide some factors you might want to consider when planning macros for your next backpacking trip.
High carbohydrate diets are traditionally recommended for endurance athletes, but that’s not necessarily what’s best for long distance hikers.
Here’s why: the body’s preferred energy source depends primarily on exercise intensity and duration. Basically, when a person is exercising at high intensity, carbohydrate is the predominant fuel source, while at lower intensities, such as walking, the primary fuel source is free fatty acids.
For the most part, hiking is a low to moderate intensity activity with bursts of more intense efforts, such as when climbing a mountain or crossing difficult terrain. Therefore, backpackers have high aerobic needs, low anaerobic needs, and low strength needs. This is one reason healthy fat is an ideal fuel source for backpacking.
Fat also makes sense for backpackers from a pack weight perspective since fat is 2.25x more calorically dense than carbohydrates or protein (fat provides 9 calories per gram while carbs and protein provide 4 calories per gram). This means you can carry less food weight overall by carrying more high -fat foods. Basically, a high-fat diet weighs less than a high-carbohydrate diet with the same number of calories.
IMPORTANT NOTE: If you decide to consume a diet higher in fat, it’s important to choose healthy sources of fat, consume adequate protein and a lower ratio of carbohydrate. It’s also important to note that high fat here is being discussed specifically for how it can be conducive to a long distance hiking trip. With any dietary changes, it’s valuable to get tested to see how changes are affecting your bloodwork.
So, how do you put this info into action? To recap,
- Figure out your total calorie needs with an online activity-adjusted calculator.
- Identify your ideal ratio of macronutrients.
- Figure out your protein needs first. Anywhere from 15-25% is probably appropriate for most backpackers. You can research recommendations online and choose the ratio that feels most appropriate for you.
- The remainder of your daily calories are come from a combination of fat and carbohydrates. Favoring fats can be ideal for backpackers to help them lower pack weight. Nutritionally, fats are also ideal for low to moderate intensity activities. Carbohydrates are helpful for when you need quick bursts of energy as well as for restoring glycogen and sleeping better at night.